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Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was a political thinker and pamphleteer who played an incredibly important role in the American Revolution. He is most famous for his pamphlet Common Sense (1776), which inspired many to join the American Revolution. He also wrote Rights of Man (1791) and The Age of Reason (1794).

A Biography of Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was born in Norfolk, England in 1737. He had very little schooling and began working for his father at the age of 13. Eventually, he would become an excise officer. An excise officer made sure all taxes were paid by citizens. Unsatisfied with his meager income, Paine published a piece arguing for a raise in pay, which led to his dismissal from the excise officer position.

Then Paine met Benjamin Franklin, who advised him to seek his fortunes in America, and in 1774 Paine arrived in Philadelphia. Paine was introduced to Robert Atkin, with whom he founded Pennsylvania Magazine. He edited countless articles as well as published many anonymously.

Paine reached America during a very tense period leading up to the American Revolution. Colonists were becoming increasingly frustrated and angry with England. By the 18th century, American colonists became self-reliant without much need for governance from England.

However, when the British won the Seven Years' War in 1763 against the French, England tried to become more involved in the colonies with increased taxation, control over trade, and punitive laws. Many colonists in the 1770s were ready to revolt.

When the Battle of Lexington and Concord broke out in 1775, Paine believed the colonists should start calling for their independence from England. In 1776, Paine wrote Common Sense, which highlighted the justification and reasoning for independence. It was widely circulated and popular, resulting in many becoming inspired to act.

Thomas Paine, Declaration of Independence Signing, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Paine's Common Sense helped inspire the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Common Sense is said to have influenced the signing of the "Declaration of Independence" directly.

The "Declaration of Independence" was a document signed by revolutionaries such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. It stated that people have the three basic rights: rights to "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" (Paragraph 3).

If these three basic rights are violated by the government, the people have a right to rebel and call for the abolishment of that government. The "Declaration of Independence" was ratified on the 4th of July, 1776.

Throughout the American Revolutionary War, which colonists fought the British for their independence, Paine served as a volunteer and aided General Nathanael Greene. Between 1776 and 1783, Paine wrote a series of 16 "Crisis" papers, which were meant to inspire revolutionaries to keep fighting through the darkest days of the war.

Paine's language was so powerful it even inspired George Washington's troops, which were weakening, to keep fighting. Paine become a secretary to the Committee for Foreign Affairs in 1777. After he was forced to resign due to a conflict with another congress member, Paine found work as a clerk for the General Assembly of Pennsylvania in 1779.

American troops were severely underpaid and lacked resources, so Paine went to France to bring back supplies, like clothes and ammunition, so that soldiers could continue fighting. In 1780, he wrote, "Public Good" (1780) in which he called for a convention to rethink the Articles of Confederation and create a central government.

The Articles of Confederation was a document drafted in 1777 that would create a national government that was made up of a congress that had the power to: declare war, sign treaties, appoint ambassadors for foreign affairs and international relations, as well as make alliances.

In order to go into effect, all thirteen states had to sign it, however, due to differing opinions and disputes, it wouldn't be ratified until 1781. After its ratification, the Congress of the Confederation was put into action.

When the American Revolution ended in 1783, Paine was in poverty because he never collected the profits from the sales of his written works. New York granted him a farm where he lived until 1787. In 1787, Paine left for Europe to promote a bridge-building plan he had for Pennsylvania.

Thomas Paine, French Revolution, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Thomas Paine became involved in the French Revolution.

When Paine reached England, he left his project to fight for a new cause: The French Revolution. Paine had read Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which attacked the French people's uprising against the Monarchy. Paine responded with The Rights of Man (1791), which not only defended the French Revolution, but also looked into the problems with European societies. It called for Republicanism rather than a monarchy.

Paine's writing was considered high treason in England, and a warrant was out for his arrest. However, Paine was already in France where he was elected to sit in the National Convention. Due to Paine's opposition to the revolutionary's violence toward the King and other royalists, Paine was imprisoned between 1793 and 1794.

He wrote the Age of Reason (1794) while in prison, which outlined his belief in Deism and his opposition to organized religion.

Deism is the belief in a supreme being that does not intervene in any occurrence in the universe.

Paine then wrote Agrarian Justice (1797), which pointed out inequalities in the ownership of property. Six years prior, hurt by George Washington's lack of involvement to free Paine from a French prison, Paine wrote a scathing letter to Washington. The letter tarnished Washington's reputation and called him a treacherous man and unworthy general. Paine published the letter publicly in 1796. In 1802, Paine returned to the United States where he was not very much liked for his religious beliefs, attacks against Washington, and his support of the French. Paine spent his last years in poverty and attacking the privileged. Paine died in New York in 1809.

Thomas Paine's Famous Works

Thomas Paine is most well known for three of his most famous works: Common Sense, Rights of Man, and Age of Reason. Each played an important role in inspiring Revolution and provoking thought among its readers.

Common Sense (1775-1776)

Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense between 1775-1776. It is in the form of a pamphlet that could easily be distributed and circulated. Common Sense is divided into four parts with discussions of the relationship between Englightenment theories and a republican government, the problems with a monarchy, how the colonies can reach their independence, and the potential of the American military.

Thomas Paine, American Revolution Soldier Statue, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Common Sense inspired many to join the American Revolution.

Common Sense sold over 500,000 copies within its first year and was read by many. It inspired many colonists to revolt against England. It was Common Sense that would help inspire leaders to write the "Declaration of Independence".

The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested." (Introduction)

In the introduction to Common Sense, Paine states that the cause of America is the cause of all mankind. What do you think Paine meant by that?

Rights of Man (1791)

Rights of Man (1791) is a book written by Thomas Paine that contains 31 articles. The basic principle of the text is that if a government does not honor the rights of its people, then the people had the right to revolt against the government. It defends the French people's choice to revolt against the French monarchy in the French Revolution.

According to Paine, it is in nature that human rights have their origin. That being the case, it is the government's responsibility to uphold these rights and not to decide which rights are given and not given. In the final part of Rights of Man, Paine calls for the English Government to reorganize under a constitution based on a national assembly.

Age of Reason (1794)

Pain wrote the Age of Reason while imprisoned in France. The foundation of the piece is an argument for the belief in Deism and to move away from organized religion. The text is made up of three sections. The first part is dedicated to outlining his arguments, while the last two parts focus on the analysis of certain parts of the Bible.

Revelation, which is used to provide evidence of God's existence, is considered a weak argument according to Paine. Paine believed that the Bible should be analyzed and put under the same logistical scrutiny as any secular text. He points out different contradictions found in the Bible and concludes that the Bible is inconsistent. Paine sees organized religion, particularly Christianity, as corrupt and oppressive.

Paine made sure to write the Age of Reason in a language the common man could understand, yet still touch on all the important political points in the argument.

Revelation when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man. No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only." (Chapter 2)

Paine was opposed to using the concept of revelation to provide evidence for the existence of God. In this excerpt from Chapter 2 of Age of Reason, Paine demonstrates that in order for a revelation to be applicable to everyone, it is a revelation that must be revealed to everyone, not a single individual.

Thomas Paine's Beliefs and Ideas

Thomas Paine was a great political and philosophical thinker and had many beliefs and ideas on human nature, the role of government, and religion. Paine believed in civic republicanism and scientific and social progression.

Civic Republicanism is a political ideology that is central to the government of the United States of America. It focuses on citizenship as the central role, as well as the liberty and freedoms granted to citizens, which should be protected and safeguarded by the government. Citizens are expected to uphold the virtues and ideals of the republic so as to create a harmonious balance.

In addition to Paine's belief in civic republicanism, Paine believed that the state should provide welfare and subsidies to people who are poor. This meant free public education, pension after retirement, and family childcare support.Paine also believed in the emancipation of slavery in the American Colonies. While working for the Pennsylvania Magazine, he wrote an anonymous article titled "African Slavery in America" (1775) in which he outlined the need to abolish slavery.

Thomas Paine's Contribution to the American Revolution

Thomas Paine contributed greatly to the American Revolution, especially with his writings. Not everyone was ready to fight on the behalf of the colonists during the conflicts with the British. Many still saw themselves as loyal to the British crown, just resistant to the increased taxation and tightening laws. When Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, the hesitancy to join the cause began to change.

Paine's argument against the British King and his outline of an independent America where colonists would be free to rule themselves was persuasive. Not only did it inspire the everyday colonists to revolt, but it also inspired revolutionary leaders to actually declare independence and draft the "Declaration of Independence".

In addition, in the midst of the American Revolution when troops were low in spirits and supplies, Paine wrote the "Crisis" papers that inspired the revolutionaries to keep working towards their goal.

Thomas Paine's "Crisis" papers even reached the hands of George Washington, a general and the future first president of the United States of America. When his troops were struggling to survive in Valley Forge, it is said he read the "Crisis" papers to his troops. This inspired them to keep fighting.

Thomas Paine, George Washington Horse, StudySmarterFig. 4 - George Washington read Thomas Paine's "Crisis" papers to his troops.

Therefore, Paine contributed more with his words and intellect than his strength on the field. He did work as a volunteer, but he is most well known for inspiring the revolutionary spirit in the American colonists with his writing.

These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

These are the opening remarks of the "Crisis" papers from 1776. It acknowledges how tired the soldiers were, but Paine reminds them that if they stand and fight, they will have the praise of so many American colonists who would be free from the hands of the British.

Quotes by Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, Gravestone Quote, StudySmartFig. 5 - This is the quote on Thomas Paine's gravestone in New York.

Thomas Paine was known for his words. Here are some quotes that will help you understand his writing a bit better.

But to pass from the extremes of danger to safety - from the tumult of war to the tranquillity of peace, though sweet in contemplation, requires a gradual composure of the senses to receive it. Even calmness has the power of stunning, when it opens too instantly upon us."

In this 1783 excerpt from Paine's "Crisis" papers, the reader understands the Revolution is now over. The American Colonists won against the British, and the excitement of a promising future awaits them. However, Paine warns the colonists that one cannot simply go from revolutionary tumult straight into a harmonious and peaceful existence. Rather, the transition must be slow, and people must use their reason and logic as they move forward to further establish the new government of the American people.

A great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished." (Chapter I)

In this excerpt from The Rights of Man, Paine believed human rights were part of nature. Human rights existed long before the establishment of any government. Therefore, due to the preexisting condition in which human rights of mankind have existed, a government does not have the ability to take them away. With or without government, human rights will always be in existence.

The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. ’Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent—of at least one eighth part of the habitable globe. ’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age... the wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full grown characters." (Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs)

In this impassioned excerpt from Paine's Common Sense, the reader is told of the enormity of the American Revolution. Its enormity lies not only in its landmass, but also in time. By standing up and revolting against the British, Paine is telling his readers that they will be a part of creating a better future with more promise and prosperity. It is a monumental moment.

Thomas Paine - Key takeaways

  • Thomas Paine was born in England in 1737 and came to the American colonies in 1774.
  • He came to the colonies when tensions were rising between the American colonists and the British, who were increasing taxation and increasing their stronghold over the law.
  • Paine was inspired to write Common Sense in 1776 in order to inspire American revolutionaries to stand up and fight against the British by outlining the absurdities of British rule and the promise of a more prosperous future for America.
  • Paine also wrote famous works such as the Age of Reason and The Rights of Man.
  • Paine was a Deist and believed in civic republicanism as well as the abolishment of slavery.

Frequently Asked Questions about Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was a political and philosophical thinker known for his contributions to the American Revolution. 

Thomas Paine's Common Sense inspired many colonists to join the revolution and inspired Revolutionary leaders to declare independence from England. In this way, he is important to the American Revolution.

Thomas Paine is most famous for his pamphlet Common Sense

Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, he played an important role in the American Revolution and French Revolutions, and he believed in civic republicanism.

Paine's message in Common Sense was that the rulership under a monarchy was not ideal and that a republican government was the best form of governance. It also highlighted that all men are created equal and have natural human rights.

Final Thomas Paine Quiz

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Why did Thomas Paine leave England for America in 1774?

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He was encouraged by Benjamin Franklin to seek his fortunes there. 

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What is the name of the magazine Paine founded with Robert Atkin?

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Pennsylvania Magazine

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After what battle did Paine decide to write Common Sense?

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the Battle of Lexington and Concord

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Which important document in American history did Common Sense influence Revolutionary leaders to sign?

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The Declaration of Independence

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What were the "Crisis" papers?

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A series of 16 papers written by Paine to inspire revolutionaries to keep fighting through the darkest days of the war. 

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What European revolution inspired Paine to write The Rights of Man?

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The French Revolution

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What was Paine's religious/spiritual belief?

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Deism

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What form of writing is Common Sense?

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A pamphlet

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What is the basic principle of The Rights of Man?

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If a government does not honor the rights of its people, then the people had the right to political revolt against the government.

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Where do human rights originate according to Paine?

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In nature

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What does The Age of Reason argue?

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For the belief in Deism and to move away from organized religion

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What form of government did Paine believe in?

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civic republicanism

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What is the focus of civil republicanism?

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It focuses on citizenship as the central role as well as the liberty and freedoms granted to citizens, which should be protected and safeguarded by the government. 

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Where was Thomas Paine born?

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Norfolk, England

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When did Paine die?

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1809

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Who is the author of Common Sense?

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Thomas Paine

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When was Common Sense published?

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1776

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How did Common Sense help unite the American public?

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It provided a basis for rebelling against the British Crown, in that the strongest commonality for Americans was their need for independence.

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Many colonists were afraid to challenge

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Hereditary rule

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Paine criticized the British constitution as

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overly complex and impossible to remedy

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Paine felt that hereditary rule

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isolated Kings from their constituents

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Paine argued that Americans and British could no longer reconcile their differences with

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diplomacy

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Paine argued that independence could protect America from

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civil war

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Paine's plan for American independence was

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send delegates to form a Continental Congress

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If the colonies unite then

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The international community will recognize their legitimacy as a nation

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What was the main point of Common Sense?


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The main point of Common Sense was that America was ready to fight for independence and rule itself.

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Why did Thomas Paine call it Common Sense?


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Thomas Paine named his pamphlet Common Sense in hopes it would appeal to the common man, and appeal to their sense of rationality.

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Why was Common Sense important?


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Common Sense is important because it helped unite the British American colonies to fight for independence.

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Did the British Constitution represent American interests?

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no

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What does Paine argue regarding the geography of America and Great Britain?

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That it makes no practical sense for an island country to govern a continent several times larger across a vast ocean.

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Who wrote the Rights of Man?



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Thomas Paine

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When was Rights of Man published?

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1791

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What is the main idea of the Rights of Man?



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The main idea of the Rights of Man is that man has inherent rights that should be protected by government of their consent.

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What did Thomas Paine argue in Rights of Man?


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Thomas Paine argued in Rights of Man that hereditary rule is obsolete now that men realize they have inherent rights and deserve a government of their own design.

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What was the purpose of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man?


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The purpose of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man was to respond to Edmund Burke's critique of the French revolution and expound upon the concepts of personal liberty.

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What did Thomas Paine mean by Rights of Man?

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It refers to the inherent civil liberties that man has a right to, such a freedom from persecution, religious freedom, and freedom of expression.

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Rights of Man was written as a response to


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Edmund Burke

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Thomas Paine believes that hereditary rule is

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arbitrary

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To Paine, governments

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do not last forever

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Laws should always reflect

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the desires of the community

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Paine believes the French Revolution can be an example for

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Europe

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It is the personal duty of citizens to

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critique their government

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Old forms of government were

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imposed by force.

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New systems of government are

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representative and consensual

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The three main ideas of Rights of Man are

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The obsolescence of Monarchy, Individual Rights, and the Right to Revolution.

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